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'Being a SENCo is a tough job, but an important one and they need support'

Louis Coiffait (@LouisMMCoiffait), chief executive of NAHT Edge, a professional association for middle leaders, writes: 

We can’t underestimate the ongoing impact of recent changes to special educational needs and disability (SEND) provision in schools. It takes time to get teaching assistants, teachers, school leaders, parents, governors and the students themselves all up to speed with the completely new system we are moving to.

By the end of the two-year "transition period" every school should have personal education, health and care plans and SEN support in place for SEND students, replacing the former structure of Statements, School Action and School Action Plus. There’s also a new code of practice, a new approach to assessment, administration of medicines and much more besides.

It’s not as if this wholesale reform has happened in isolation either, with sweeping changes to curriculum, assessment and the rest all happening concurrently. This is also taking place in an increasingly constrained context, which sadly is something unlikely to change after May’s election, whoever comes out on top. Schools are in a situation where they’re having to do even more, with even less.

Every state-funded school has a SEN co-ordinator (SENCo) appointed, one person responsible for making sure that each SEND pupil in the school receives tailored support and learning opportunities. This is a hugely diverse role. Among other things it involves making sure the school’s SEND policy is being followed, working with different colleagues, role-modelling good practice, and mentoring others to help them refine how they teach SEND students.

They have close contact with parents and carers of SEND pupils too, sometimes in difficult and stressful circumstances. SENCos also interact with a wide range of other external professionals and organisations, often across different domains, disciplines and professional boundaries, often all at the same time.

They will also need to influence others, often without direct line management status. That can be a delicate task with busy colleagues, but it’s a key skill to develop and one that can stand people in good stead throughout their careers. Similarly they will often only achieve success through others rather than directly themselves so will need to learn how to celebrate and share the achievements of those around them.

They will have to manage resources and their time effectively, juggling their own teaching responsibilities with supporting others. They may also be managing the finances associated with any SEND funding or provision, including liaising with parents and carers who now have a dedicated budget to support their child. Ultimately, if they are to stick with it they will need to show plenty of enthusiasm and commitment, as well as hopefully get real enjoyment from helping to support the learning of SEND pupils.

It’s a tough job, requiring some sophisticated leadership and management skills, often on top of other responsibilities. But it’s also an important job, and so we have to help support SENCos to reach their potential - playing a strategic role across their whole school, and sometimes beyond.

Given these extra pressures and responsibilities, this points to the need for tailored, focused and high quality support for these important leaders found in every school. It’s not good enough to only lump them in to generic training alongside other school leaders, they need opportunities to focus on the core skills they need in their role and to meet others doing it in other schools.

A growing proportion of NAHT Edge members are SENCos and I’m looking forward to meeting and learning from both middle and senior leaders at our annual SEND conference this week.

I hope we can all focus more on the needs of SENCos, we not only owe it to them and their colleagues, but to our most vulnerable students whose learning they champion.

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